Typo London

Last week was taken over by Typo London, the first of the famed Typo Berlin design conferences to make it to the UK. Eric Spiekermann chaired the event, with his team of moderators, and the whole thing was nicely organised and had some fun bits.

Despite the title ‘Typo London’, this is not a conference primarily about type. It’s more to do with graphic design and the ‘creative industries’, so it covered areas like conceptual art, animation and UX design, which can be quite a long way from type.

Screens for ‘Hybrid Media

As it turned out, the areas unconnected with type turned out to be among the most interesting and useful. Take for example Dale Herigstad’s talk, which kicked off the conference. Dale was in the team that devised the gestural interfaces launched originally in ‘Minority Report’, so his visionary work is very much part of our everyday lives through touch-screen technology. Dale contextualised the evolution of our media, from print to photograph to film, cinema, interactive media, virtual reality and now to stereo 3D, explaining that each step change has brought the user closer to the experience. Working at the cutting edge of technology, where hard work sounds like a whole lot of fun, Dale is now fusing the worlds of movie, video gaming and internet, using gestural interactions and stereoscopic 3D to produce enriched experiences in wholly new arenas.

BBC Web Typography

Kutlu Çanlıoğlu and Titus Nemeth have been collaborating on the BBC World Service websites, which exist in 27 languages across 9 scripts including Arabic, Hindi and Mandarin. Web typography is of course still in its infancy, but this has not deterred Kutlu and the BBC from aspiring to meticulous consistency between its sister sites. The key here was in setting up a baseline grid and making detailed observations of how fonts behave in terms of line spacing at different sizes. The BBC team also had to research the cultural expectations of their audiences in different countries, in order to present information in the right place on screen. Some countries preferred the ‘hard’, newsy headlines first, others like to have a mix of the ‘softer’ stories and advertisements. Titus worked hard on his Nassim typeface to make sure the new Urdu site has a strong identity that nevertheless fits into the international framework of the BBC. As a result of translations between various technologies, Arabic has become victim to a number of simplifications and constraints, which meant that Titus had to design his Arabic typeface very critically, so as not to replicate errors and mis-designs that have unfortunately become standard. The result now is the BBC Urdu website that is not only faithful to its heritage but also cutting edge technology in action.

Clear Methodology

Another funky speaker was Michael B Johnson from Pixar, who talked us through the process of creating an animated movie. He showed us the thinking processes behind some scenes in Toy Story 3 and in The Incredibles. Each story had to be pitched using moving pictures (stop-frame black and white sketches accompanied by one-person voices and sound effects) before the editors and producers, before being edited and critiqued many times to iron out any dead-ends in the story and difficult spots. I found it very insightful to see how smart and rigorous the processes need to be.

Design Made Public

Gary Hustwit, director of the 2007 docu-movie Helvetica, presented some clips from his next release, Urbanized, which focuses on projects that put design in the hands of the public. Gary asks how can city planning be made more participatory, and comes out with some fun but astonishingly elegant answers. One project by Candy Chang, looks at the suburban decay of New Orleans and how design thinking can give the community a voice to express their needs and ideas. Faced by a depressing number of vacant lots and buildings around her city, Candy made some vinyl stickers that read “I wish this was…” for passers-by to complete with their suggestions on how spaces can be reclaimed. The beauty here is in the direct generation of ideas straight from the stakeholders in the community.

Another urban project took over Tidy Street in Brighton, my home town. Here, residents were encouraged to pay attention to their use of electricity for three weeks. The street’s consumption was measured and painted day-by-day on the road surface in bright colours, where all the residents and passers-by could see progress. By the end of the project, residents were observing the direct relationship between their use of household appliances and the street’s whole consumption. I love the way creative thinking can trigger people to think in a more socially and environmentally responsible way, and bring communities together to promote collective action.

Wayfinding in London

Tim Fendley talked us through the process of designing London’s new wayfinding signage. The design team here had to identify the shortcomings of existing navigation systems, often put together over decades in differing styles and sometimes inconsistent and even contradictory. They also had to examine the psychology of a journey, which included identifying four different kinds of pedestrian, map-reading problems, and the barriers we face when transferring between different modes of transport. The team found that we tend to walk in ‘bubbles’ or areas that we are familar with, and rely on transport to take us to other bubbles. When people are given the confidence to take longer walks, there follow ‘eureka’ moments when two independent bubbles are suddenly linked in the pedestrian’s head. Their solution therefore involved strategic placement of street maps, easing the transition points between modes of transport, and the maps indicate 5-minute and 15-minute walking radiuses to encourage people to explore on foot more.

On reflection, I found the best bits of Typo London not in the portfolios of artists and type designers, which I could have easily found documented on their websites. The bits I’ve covered here are the bits where designers have told us about their processes and approach, which can be usefully extrapolated and applied to any other branch of design including type design. Following their reasoning why they made certain choices, how they diagnosed the requirements of their users was much more valuable than seeing what the choices were and seeing the finished designs.

Photos from Typo London over on Flickr.